Looking for America, students check out Phila. Touring by bus, they have questions to ask, reports to write.

Posted: July 09, 2009

All the way from Nashville, 10 students and two professors hit the road this summer - rock-star style - to discover what people think it means to be an American.

Students from Belmont University took their sociology and writing courses to a grand laboratory - 40 U.S. cities - to ask what unites citizens. In a tour bus equipped with beds, wireless Internet access, and a quirky driver, the students yesterday made Philadelphia stop No. 28.

At each stop, students from the liberal-arts university start conversations with locals and tourists about what makes America tick. That issue was raised in part last fall when a town hall presidential debate took place at Belmont.

"Sometimes we get pretty simple answers, like freedom, and sometimes we get negative answers," said Emily Headrick, 22, the student coordinator of the Philadelphia leg of their trip. Each student is assigned three cities and is responsible for planning the day's activities. On completing the tour, students will write term papers.

They will crisscross 9,300 miles of America. They stopped at Memphis; Little Rock, Ark; New Orleans; San Antonio, Texas; Roswell, N.M.; the Grand Canyon; and other familiar places in the American West before hitting California and turning eastward. They will be in Washington today.

The Belmont students packed their only day in Philadelphia with visits to the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, LOVE Park, and a tasty pause at the Reading Terminal Market. Dinner last night was with a representative from the nonprofit Mission Year.

Philadelphians weighed in freely.

"The opportunity to make my destiny is what it means to be an American to me," said Lelfteria Papavasclis, 27, who lives in Stratford and commutes to Philadelphia every day to work as a park ranger at the Liberty Bell building.

Students Chris Speed, 21, and Rashina Bhula, 20, asked her if inequities persisted in America.

"The bell is not perfect and that's OK, because society is not perfect," Papavasclis said, citing prejudice as one of the biggest obstacles to national unity.

For Ray Tamaqua Gishgu, who was dressed in the traditional garb of his Leni-Lenape tribe, his experience as a racial minority has affected how he sees America.

"I would like to see the United States make amends for what it has done" to American Indians, Gishgu said.

But Gishgu, who gave his age as "over 50," said the United States had come a long way along the path to racial reconciliation.

"If you had told me at 20 that someday the United States would elect a black president, I would have laughed at you," he said while laughing. "Where's the rest of the joke?"

Being on the road for so much time means students and their professors must get comfortable touring on the bus, showering sporadically, and having limited privacy.

"Some of the barriers between teacher and student kind of broke down early on," 21-year-old Heather Gillespie said.

When asked the first thing she would do when the trip was completed, Emma Shouse, 20, said proper hygiene would top the list.

"Take a bath," Shouse said. "I have come to appreciate the private shower." She didn't say much about returning to a comfortable bed at home.

Keeping up with students while on the road has not always been easy, but Ken Spring, 37, the chairman of the sociology department at Belmont, motioned with two fingers from his eyes toward the door, as if to say he was watching them. The professor and the students laughed.

"He claims he has eagle eyes, but what he really has is Elizabeth's GPS," Gillespie said.

Jokes aside, there is work to be done.

Students shoot video, take photographs, and compile notes to post daily blogs about the places and people they visit.

The three required papers will give each student credit for a sociology and a writing course. The trip cost them $7,400, which is $1,400 more than tuition for two summer courses they would take on campus.

In addition to their vast laboratory, students avail themselves of the stories of their bus driver, who has hauled some famous clients. The man they know as Rubin has driven tour buses for Li'l Wayne, Papa Roach, Madonna, Jamie Foxx, and Paramore, among others. He also gets to sleep in a hotel each night.

"He got a call from Li'l Wayne this morning," said Pierce Greenberg, 19.

Contact staff writer Naomi Nix at 215-854-2797 or nnix@phillynews.com.

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